It has recently been mooted that playing matches involving English teams abroad could become a realistic option. This has initially been suggested for the US market as the IRB, RFU and Premiership clubs look to increase the reach of the sport. The financial gains to be made are potentially massive as is the case whenever anything is taken to the States. Cracking the American market has always been the mark of global success for film, television and music, but not necessarily sport.
Team sport in the USA has always been a little cut off from the realities of the rest of the globe. Baseball has only reached Asia (to some extent) and Cuba. Basketball is a very popular sport across Europe but there have been only a very few examples of world class players emerging from outside the US College system. Ice Hockey is equally dominated by the North Americans.
While soccer has grown in popularity in the US through a successful strategy of centrally contracting US National Team players, alongside signing stellar foreigners, it still has a long way to go. While all of these sports are viewed as ‘national’ on the other side of the pond, it is such an enormous market that there are opportunities upon which other sports should be able to capitalise.
One of the most important parts of the remit of the IRB is to help develop rugby to a wider global audience. This has been a roaring success in the 7s format of the game as more and more teams have become capable of performing at an international level quickly. The chance to watch 7s as an Olympic sport will have a further impact, it is hoped, both in the men’s and women’s competitions. 7s is an easy game to understand making it a perfect vehicle with which to introduce it to a new worldwide set of fans.
The full 15-man version of rugby is a different kettle of fish, though. Even for people who have grown up in rugby-playing nations the rules are not always clear, and seem to change more regularly than the shirts in which teams go on to the field each season. Even for the seasoned rugby watcher (and player) some of the rules are misunderstood.
It is however a spectacular sport to watch. The sight of Israel Dagg taking a high ball while running at full speed, Will Genia fizzing through a gap at a broken line-out, Sergio Parisse crashing through a tackle, Manu Tuilagi smashing his opposite number, Sam Warburton putting his head in where it hurts and emerging with the ball, or Argentinian props matching their South African counterparts in an eight man shoving contest are all superb to watch.
These are the things that sell the sport. They are the high points which we need the wider rugby world to see on a more regular basis. And they need to see it live.
It is all well and good for us to say that we need to grow rugby internationally, but how do we go about doing it? The rules are complicated, the base support isn’t there to start with, and the opportunity to see top teams play one another in the flesh is non-existent.
Taking the plunge and relocating the occasional game to an American audience will certainly cause some consternation amongst the loyal supporters who pay and have paid their dues and money week in week out for years. But it may be a necessary evil.
NFL is a leader in this regard as the spectacle of regular season matches at Wembley draw in enormous crowds. Could the same be said about a Heineken Cup match staged in New York? Or an Aviva Premiership clash in Dallas? There is only one way to find out, but my guess is it would. Rugby in the states is a minority sport, but as I said before, it is a massive market.
The sceptics will say this is all about the money. The amount of cash generated would certainly be a factor, and there is no way that any team involved in such a match would get involved for a loss. But taking a share of the market and cashing in is probably a good thing for rugby anyway. Not many of the teams in England make much of a profit as it is, and the chance to increase revenues should not be dismissed because of conservative worries and cynical points of view.
More research needs to be done as to whether this is a goer but it could be a superb opportunity for the rugby world to extend its reach and take in new members of the global rugby family.
By Chris Francis (@mckrisp)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images